Benjamin, Finlay clash on budget

Kirkman Finlay, a Columbia City Councilman and candidate for mayor, is hosting a private meeting today at his Shop Road restaurant where he plans to explain the city's budget to the other mayoral candidates.

Except Steve Benjamin.

"I believe that your cuts have decimated public safety funding and made our neighborhoods less safe and that your approach is wrong," Benjamin wrote in response to Finlay's invitation, adding "We've done our own research on the budget."

Wednesday, when asked about Benjamin's e-mail, Finlay said: "I think Steve is trying to make political hay over the tough decisions that have kept the city from going bankrupt."

It's a typical exchange between the two candidates, who have begun targeting each other in recent weeks as the two fundraising leaders lay out their competing views for Columbia's financial future.

Today's meeting was set up by candidate Sparkle Clark, who said she was impressed with Finlay's knowledge of the city's budget and wanted some pointers. Finlay opened the meeting up to each of the eight other mayoral candidates.

"It's only a good thing to have a healthy relationship with the other candidates," said candidate Aaron Johnson, who plans to attend. "If all we do is butt heads, there's not going to be any progress."

Benjamin and Finlay have been butting heads over Benjamin's promise to boost the city's police and fire department budgets by a combined $9 million, a stance that Wednesday earned him the endorsement of the Columbia Firefighters Association and the Columbia chapter of the Police Benevolence Association.

But some at City Hall, including city manager Steve Gantt - the man tasked with writing and managing the city's budget - question where the money for the police and fire departments would come from.

"That's almost 10 percent of our budget," Gantt said. "I don't know where you'd find $9 million."

Finlay has tried to pounce on that point, sending out a campaign mailer with an image of three people sticking their heads in sand under the caption, "When it comes to spending our tax dollars ... the Columbia politicians have their heads in the sand."

"It's certainly difficult to understand where that money is going to come from," Finlay said. "I've yet to hear any proactive ideas on where the new revenue is going to come from."

Benjamin has two ideas.

First, he wants to return a larger portion of the city's end of the year surplus - which through the end of January was projected at $5.3 million - to public safety.

Finlay wants to return that money instead to the city's reserves, which he said have been wiped out by the city's previous budget deficits.

"You cannot just replenish your reserves while children are getting shot on our streets," Benjamin said. "Are we not being derelict in our duty to protect the citizens of our city?"

Secondly, Benjamin wants to impose a hiring freeze, something he said the city does not have now, according to the job postings on the city's Web site. The freeze, he said, would save the city $2 million in salaries.

Gantt, the city manager, said he already has a hiring freeze for nonessential employees and said "95 percent" of the city's job postings are for water and sewer employees, whose salaries are paid for by the city's water and sewer customers.

Mayoral candidate Steve Morrison said he plans to attend Finlay's forum. Morrison said he has reviewed the city's budget and said boosting the police and fire department budgets should be a top priority.

"Eventually, you have to get the police and fire budgets back up to full strengths," Morrison said. But "it appears under the current circumstances full restoration would not be possible in one year."

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